Psalm 51 is attributed to King David. It is another of the penitential Psalms and is referred to in the famed work Gates of Repentance by Rabbeinu Yonah (Catalan, d 1264).
The Psalm contains David’s confession to the Prophet Nathan after the illicit affair with Bat Sheba and David’s command for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle (II Samuel 12-13). It can be divided into 7 parts: the confession, a prayer for pardon, for a clear conscience, for strength not to sin again, for a return of G-d’s spirit, with a promise to help the souls of others, concluding with a prayer for Jerusalem & Zion. (The entire text can be found here.)
ְּבוֹא–אֵלָיו, נָתָן הַנָּבִיא– כַּאֲשֶׁר–בָּא, אֶל–בַּת–שָׁבַע. When Nathan the prophet came to him, after he’d gone to Bat-Sheba. (Psalms 51:2)
חָנֵּנִי אֱ–לֹהִים כְּחַסְדֶּךָ; כְּרֹב רַחֲמֶיךָ, מְחֵה פְשָׁעָי. Be gracious unto me, O G-d, according to Your mercy; according to the multitude of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. (Psalms 51:3)
הרבה (הֶרֶב), כַּבְּסֵנִי מֵעֲוֹנִי; וּמֵחַטָּאתִי טַהֲרֵנִי. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalms 51:4)
כִּי–פְשָׁעַי, אֲנִי אֵדָע; וְחַטָּאתִי נֶגְדִּי תָמִיד. For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me. (Psalms 51:5)
Due to this sin, David lost his prophetic powers and pleaded for the Almighty to return to him the spirit of Holiness.
לֵב טָהוֹר, בְּרָא–לִי אֱ–לֹהִים; וְרוּחַ נָכוֹן, חַדֵּשׁ בְּקִרְבִּי. Create in me a clean heart, O G-d; and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalms 51:12)
אַל–תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי מִלְּפָנֶיךָ; וְרוּחַ קָדְשְׁךָ, אַל–תִּקַּח מִמֶּנִּי. Cast me not away from Your presence; and take not Your holy spirit from me. (Psalms 51:13)
Included within the Psalm are verses well-known in our prayer liturgy. Most recognised is V.17 serving as the introductory words before each Amidah. The Psalm aptly concludes with a formula for true repentance – a humbled spirit and a contrite heart.
אֲ–דֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח; וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth shall declare Your praise. (Psalms 51:17)
זִבְחֵי אֱ–לֹהִים, רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה: לֵב–נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה— אֱ–לֹהִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה. Sacrifices to G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart which, O G-d, You won’t despise. (Psalms 51:19)
Because of its remorse-filled approach to repentance, it’s highly appropriate to read Psalm 51 at this time of year. Some read it after Shaharit during the month of Elul. It also appears in the early morning Yom Kippur p’sukei dezimra.
Psalm 51 is popular in other religions, and has been set to music by composers for more than 500 years (click here for an exquisite example).
Wishing you Tizku Lesahnim Rabot and a Gemar Hatimah Tobah!